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Budget impasse could mean travel nightmare for fliers

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 (Reuters)

Travelers soon could be forced to arrive at the airport many hours before their flight to deal with an expected logjam at TSA checkpoints brought on by automatic budget cuts set to go into effect March 1 -- if Congress and President Obama cannot reach a deficit-reduction deal. 

According to recent warnings, the D.C.-imposed travel nightmare could include longer waits at security checkpoints, customs and even on the tarmac if the across-the-board budget cuts hit.

Washington in the past several days has become deeply entrenched in a partisan blame game over the issue. The heightened rhetoric, which comes as Congress is out for the week, signals how little is being done to actually avert the cuts and how increasingly likely it is they will take hold in one week. 

Most vocal about the harm the indiscriminate cuts could do is the Pentagon, which on Wednesday warned that it may have to furlough 800,000 civilian workers -- effectively cutting their pay by 20 percent. 

But the U.S. Travel Association is warning that while much of the attention is on government workers and government contracts, fliers also will bear the brunt. 

"Travel has the very real potential of becoming the face of the March 1 sequester cuts," Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement. 

"These across-the-board cuts may punish travelers with flight delays, long security lines at Transportation Security Agency checkpoints and multi-hour waits to clear Customs and Border Protection." 

Dow warned of not only the inconvenience to travelers, but the economic impact to the industry.   

"Travel has led the nation's economic recovery -- generating more than 50 percent of all jobs created since the beginning of the recession. The indiscriminate sequester cuts threaten to derail the travel-led recovery," he said. 

Washington officials have been warning about a range of cuts, should $85 billion in 2013 cuts take effect -- part of more than $1 trillion over the next decade. President Obama, in an effort to press Republicans, has stressed that teachers, emergency responders and others would face the budget squeeze. The warnings have lately included predictions of long lines and delays at the airports. 

A recent report from House Democrats said the Federal Aviation Administration "may shut down or severely reduce traffic at hundreds of lower level federal and contract air traffic control towers," and the Transportation Security Administration "would reduce its frontline workforce, including a seven-day furlough for TSA screeners." This, according to the report, could result in adding to wait times by up to an additional hour at the busiest checkpoints. 

Daniel Werfel, of the White House budget office, also testified on Capitol Hill last week that the FAA would face a $600 million cut under the so-called sequester. 

"A vast majority of their 47,000 employees will be furloughed for one day per pay period for the rest of the year," he said. "And as importantly, this is going to reduce air traffic levels across the country, causing delays and disruptions for all travelers." 

Plus, he said, there would likely be a "curtailment of service" at rural airports. 

In Washington, lawmakers in both parties agree that the cuts will be bad -- particularly for the military. For the most part, they also agree that the federal government needs to achieve this level of deficit reduction, and more, to arrest the seemingly unremitting rise in the national debt. 

But Republicans and Democrats disagree sharply over how they might replace the indiscriminate cuts with something more sensible. These cuts were originally put in motion as part of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal. The idea was to tee up cuts so draconian as to force Congress to come up with a compromise package to replace it. Congress never did. 

At this stage, Obama is urging Congress to pass a short-term package and eventually nail down a proposal that blends cuts with increased revenue through closing tax loopholes. Republicans, though, are resistant to kicking the can down the road any more, and do not want to add more tax revenue into the equation -- noting that they already conceded to tax rate hikes on top earners as part of the fiscal crisis deal. 

The debate has turned instead to a question of who is to blame. Obama has aggressively pressured Republicans, claiming their resistance to tax hikes is holding up a deal. 

But Republicans say it's on Obama to come up with a compromise that both parties could support. House Speaker John Boehner, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Wednesday, noted that the sequester idea originated from the White House. 

"Having first proposed and demanded the sequester, it would make sense that the president lead the effort to replace it," Boehner wrote.

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